The Very Modern Anger of Shakespeare’s Women

What “Measure for Measure” means to us in 2019

Why, This Is Hell

I n early December 2017, Saturday Night Live aired a song titled “Welcome to Hell.” As it opens, four women, clad in bubblegum pink and lavender, perch on a pink stage; they are surrounded by oversized ice cream cones and lollipops. “Hey there, boys,” one of them purrs, “We know the last couple of months have been friggin’ insane.” A second picks it up: “All these big, cool powerful guys are turning out to be — what’s the word? — habitual predators.” “Cat’s out of the bag!” says the third. “Women get harassed ALL THE TIME.” The fourth ventriloquizes an imagined listener, asking, “It’s like… is this the world now?” The answer comes swiftly: “This BEEN the damn world.”

“Welcome to Hell” aired two months after The New York Times ran an explosive story on Harvey Weinstein’s history of abusing actresses, assistants, and others, and six weeks after Alyssa Milano invited survivors of harassment and assault to share their stories on Twitter with the hashtag #metoo — a movement first started by Tarana Burke in 2006, which in late 2017 gathered new energy as a call to action, a means of claiming ownership over individual and shared experience, and a snowballing reminder that behaviors like Weinstein’s are both extremely common and commonly unacknowledged.

In this particular moment, when these disclosures felt electrifying and new, it made perfect sense that “Welcome to Hell” mounted its critique of harassment in terms of discovery. The conceit of the song is that the listener-viewer does not already know about women’s day-to-day experiences, and is being inaugurated, verse by verse, into a grotesque world that looks like candy and teems with dangers. “This is our hometown, we’ll show you around,” the women sing together, before launching into the song’s chorus: “Welcome to hell; now we’re all in here.” To someone who reads and teaches early modern literature — someone like me — the line unmistakably echoes Christopher Marlowe’s, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” This is what Mephistopheles tells Faustus in their first meeting, when the doctor asks the devil how he can be “out of hell,” in Wittenberg. The song’s point, though, isn’t really Marlovian. This hell is less a portable existential state than a recurring set of ordinary situations, involving things like (in the song’s words) “parking and walking and Uber and ponytails, bathrobes and nighttime and drinking and hotels.” The song juxtaposes a rhetoric of epiphanic discovery — oh my god, this is hell — with the objects of that discovery: mundane, non-novel, utterly unsurprising. “Welcome to Hell” very efficiently makes a sophisticated point: women’s anger lights up the world anew; women’s anger reveals that it was ever thus.

“Welcome to Hell” very efficiently makes a sophisticated point: women’s anger lights up the world anew; women’s anger reveals that it was ever thus.

The theorist Sarah Ahmed describes coming to feminism as a cognitive “click”: things fall into place, systems of power and oppression become visible, everyday experiences become animated by new knowledge. “Becoming feminist,” Ahmed writes, “is how we redescribe the world we are in.” To put the theory in terms of the song: feminist criticism welcomes you to hell, and it shows you around. Another term Ahmed employs for this “clicking” structure — for coming into sudden knowledge of social systems through accreted individual experience — is “snapping.” To snap is to be “unable to take it,” to “lose it.” To snap is to become angry suddenly and completely: to experience anger at something specific, and, through that, at the whole system that has brought enormous pressures to bear so that a particular moment in a particular life becomes a breaking point. For Ahmed, situational anger that leads to an emotional snap is a gateway to cognitive awakening: anger lets us see the world in a new light; anger lets us see what that world has always been.

The past few years have felt like one snap after another. Breaking bones, light-bulb flares: a weird mixture of awful pain and exhilaration. And all these snaps, these moments of boiled-over rage crystallizing into recognition, point to other, earlier snaps: past moments of women’s anger that have since receded, faded, lost their urgency (but never really disappeared). I work on the past — in the past, it feels like sometimes — and in the last couple of years, the past has shifted under me. I’m not alone in this: academic friends and colleagues tell me they also see women’s anger and pain and outrage everywhere in the texts they teach and write about, and this anger makes everything else look different. For me, Shakespeare’s portrayals of women’s anger, in particular, have clicked into focus: they render entire structures of power and exchange visible, even as they expose the effects of those structures on individual people (or characters). That’s why, I think, there’s been an uptick of productions of Measure for Measure, a play in which a woman gets so angry at male desires and male behaviors that she tells her brother she will “pray a thousand prayers” for his death. For a long time, for a lot of people, this play felt unruly, unpleasant, somehow icky: a problem play. Right now, though, we understand it. And it, in turn, seems to understand us.

For me, Shakespeare’s portrayals of women’s anger, in particular, have clicked into focus: they render entire structures of power and exchange visible.

Shakespeare’s Angry Women

When Shakespeare stages a snap, the world he lights up may look at first a bit different from ours. On the Shakespearean stage women’s anger articulates a tension inherent in the patriarchal structure of English society — a society in which the transfer of land, wealth, and titles; the formation of alliances among households; and the perpetuation of family lines all depended on the exchange of women. Within this structure, women were both persons and tokens of exchange. Within families, daughters could be simultaneously loved for their own traits, qualities, histories, and esteemed for their exchange value on the marriage market. Shakespeare repeatedly returns to this double nature of daughters: in play after play, otherwise loving fathers like Egeus, Brabantio, Capulet, and Leonato explode into rage when their female children make or seem to make (or even seem to maybe want to make) independent marital or sexual choices. Female-driven ruptures within the marriage market produce angry men.

And at least some angry women. The fact that plays contain speaking female characters means that playwrights offered their audiences imagined, ventriloquized accounts of what it feels like to be both a person, and a thing.

Within families, daughters could be simultaneously loved for their own traits, qualities, histories, and esteemed for their exchange value on the marriage market.

In Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, for example, Katherine Minola’s first line crackles with anger. After Baptista declares that he is resolved not to let his younger daughter, Bianca, marry before Katherine and invites the gathered company to “court” her — an invitation that immediately invites a cruel joke at Katherine’s expense — she asks her father “I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?” A “stale” is a prostitute; “mates” means variously low fellows, or marriage partners, or sexual partners. “Are you selling me?” would be a reasonable paraphrase; “Are you selling me for sex?” a fuller one. Katherine collapses the elite marriage market into the market relations of prostitution, stripping away the symbolic distinctions between these economies and laying bare what’s at stake in both: men profiting — financially and socially, directly and indirectly — from the exchange of women’s bodies. As Lisa Jardine puts it: “The Taming of the Shrew is centrally concerned with the marketing of daughters for cash.”

This marketing is everywhere, from Petruchio’s intention “to wive and thrive in Padua” to the contest Baptista sets up between Bianca’s suitors: “[H]e… That can assure my daughter greatest dower/ Shall have my Bianca’s love” (2.1.362–4). Baptista does acknowledge his daughters’ capacity for emotion and desire — he tells Petruchio he must obtain Katherine’s love — but this turns out to be mere lip service. He never asks Katherine what she thinks of Petruchio, and the decision about Bianca is made while she’s offstage.

What Does Your Favorite Shakespeare Play Say About You?

Katherine’s first lines do not change anything in the world of the play — neither her anger nor her words are taken seriously — yet her shrewish protest is feminist, by Ahmed’s definition, because it describes reality as it is lived in by women (a reality both perpetuated and denied by her father and the gathered suitors). Her last lines, though, famously advocate patriarchal norms of wifely submission. Shakespeare stages the fading (or the strategic suppression) of Katherine’s anger, but not its origins, not her snap. In Measure for Measure, by contrast, he gives us a clear breaking point. We see Isabella lose it first at Angelo and then, more fully, at her brother, Claudio, who has been absurdly sentenced to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. When Angelo, Vienna’s acting Duke, proposes that she sleep with him to save her brother’s life, Isabella rounds on him with the threat: “Sign me a present pardon for my brother / Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud / What man thou art.” The powerful cultural logic that underpins Angelo’s calm response — “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” — prevents her from translating anger into action. But when her brother later reiterates Angelo’s request — “Sweet sister, let me live,” he begs — she explodes: “O, you beast! / O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch… Die, perish.” “Might but my bending down / Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed,” she tells him.

Katherine is angry at her father and, through him, the logic of the marriage market. Isabella is angry at her brother and, through him, something even more fundamental to patriarchal social relations: the fact that women’s status as people is always more or less under threat, because of their status (to quote from Luce Irigaray) as both “utilitarian objects and bearers of value” with respect to men. Sibling relations complicated the tensions and contradictions of patriarchy. In his Dutiful Defense of the Lawful Regiment of Women, for instance, Henry Howard writes that wives must obey husbands and daughters must obey fathers, but that they are not subordinate to other men — including brothers. Brother-sister bonds were highly variable and individualized, and it is their individualization that makes them a rich site for onstage explorations of the double status of women in patriarchy (as persons and as tokens of exchange) and within families (as people male relatives loved and held particular intimate bonds with, and as means by which those same relatives purchased connection, prestige, wealth, or, in Claudio’s case, survival).

Isabella is angry at her brother and, through him, something even more fundamental to patriarchal social relations: the fact that women’s status as people is always more or less under threat.

What makes Isabella angry at Claudio is not, I think, simply his plea, but rather the structures behind it, whose constant pressures makes his request into a breaking point. Angelo reminds Isabella that power and credibility are unequally distributed among men and women: his word, the word of a well-placed, well-reputed man, will outweigh hers. Claudio then reminds her that a woman may become, at any moment, a thing, a token, an instrument — that her personhood can and in this moment does matter less than her usefulness to men: for sexual pleasure, or to buy safety. Many critics (and theater practitioners) have expressed unease at Isabella’s vehement response to her brother. Unlike her righteous desire to expose Angelo’s “seeming,” her furious declaration that she would not so much as bend down if that would save Claudio’s life, seems excessive, vindictive, even villainous. Yet I think her anger at Claudio is in a very real sense the same as her anger at Angelo. The two cannot be separated. It is the anger of a woman who recognizes that men evaluate her in ways that have little or no reference to her intrinsic qualities, and who understands that their evaluations — Angelo’s sexual desire, Claudio’s desperate instrumentalizing — potentially have more weight, more reality, than her own sense of self.

Like the marriage market that Katherine compares to prostitution, the more short-term transaction facing Isabella is monumentally indifferent to her personhood, on which she might reasonably assume her brother’s love for her is staked. The question, then, isn’t really whether she’s morally right or wrong to say what she says to Claudio, but why she snaps, and what knowledge — what recalibrated perception of reality — her snap brings into view.

Passing Presents

“Women’s anger,” feminist writer Kate Harding wrote after the Kavanaugh hearings, “is having a moment.” Not coincidentally, Measure for Measure is also having a moment. High-profile productions have appeared in London and New York; a collaboration between London’s Cheek-by-Jowl and Moscow’s Pushkin Theater, in Russian with English subtitles, has been touring Europe and the US to critical acclaim; it appeared in Boston, D.C., and Brooklyn in the second half of 2018. Reviews have called these productions “timely,” “unexpectedly modern,” “tailor-made for the #MeToo era.” In the media, op-eds not pegged to any particular production have noted the play’s relevance. On vox.com Tara Isabella Burton writes that it is “one of the most relevant plays ever written about sexual harassment and abuse against women”; in the Times of San Diego, Peter Herman notes that Measure for Measure, “not only predicts contemporary events, but helps us understand them.”

A Master Class in Women’s Rage

Literary scholars often hear about dangers of presentism: we are warned against looking at the past for confirmation of our own progress — the distance between us and them — and against collapsing that distance, and seeing, Narcissus-like, our own reflections in long-ago lives and letters. But of course, the present always shapes our encounters with earlier texts, whether we’re reading them, writing about them or, in the case of Shakespeare, staging them. Not only do we inevitably view the past through the lens of our present, but our present also renders the past visible — or invisible — in shifting ways. Walter Benjamin tells us that history is “filled with the presence of the now.” And, as the now changes, so does the history.

The “moment” that women’s anger is currently “having” lights up the past, but it does so in unexpected, sometimes uneven ways. It offers more of a flare or a sparkle than a steady illumination. That’s because this moment is itself volatile, marked by reversals and shifts in direction.

In the summer of 2017 I wrote a review of a very good and very funny production of Measure for Measure at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. I ended with a reflection on the character of Mariana, who chooses to marry Angelo in full knowledge of his past behavior. “The frankness of her love,” I wrote, “feels like a kind of grace. Even the least deserving — even Angelo — may be forgiven.” Academic publishing schedules being what they are, the review had yet to appear in print when #metoo surged that fall. I asked my editor if I could make some changes. The new ending reads: “Watching the play this past summer, I thought Angelo’s ending looked like the workings of grace: unearned forgiveness for the worst of sinners. Revising this review in the wake of the avalanche of women’s stories in the news, I can’t recapture that sense of things. Angelo’s ending still seems unearned. But instead of grace, it now looks like injustice.”

In December of 2017, in other words, the play seemed so clearly to be about the ways in which the world, our world, was opening up — because of women’s anger. Some people could say what they hadn’t before; some people could see what they hadn’t before. Something big had snapped, and Measure for Measure was part of it.

In December of 2017, “Measure for Measure” seemed so clearly to be about the ways in which the world, our world, was opening up — because of women’s anger.

A few months later, in the fall of 2018, I taught the play for the first time. Discussion of the middle acts fell one a year after the Weinstein story broke, one week after Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress. My students’ reaction to Angelo — and to Claudio, in fact — was by and large an echo of Isabella’s: immediate, powerful rage. The fit was eerily exact: Kavanaugh the supposed “choirboy” was another Angelo, with his reputation for extreme sexual purity (other characters conjecture that his blood is “snow-broth” and his urine “congealed ice”). The confluence of the play and the hearings made my students angry. It made me angry too, and this anger involved different kind of knowledge than what I had come to just a year before. Instead of the cat’s-out-of-the-bag epiphany that “women get harassed all the time,” the play now imparted the darker knowledge that powerful men remain powerful, even when accused, as Isabella puts it, “with outstretched throat.”

When I mentioned I had never taught Measure for Measure previously, the students asked why. The truth is, the last time I’d written a Shakespeare syllabus — in the late summer of 2016, a moment both recent and distant — a woman was about to be elected president. Insofar as I considered Measure for Measure for that 2016 class (which wasn’t really very far) I thought that it would seem irrelevant, maybe even inaccessible, certainly a hard sell compared to Hamlet and Twelfth Night. This all now seems impossible, feels impossible, and yet I remember it was so.

Shakespeare’s plays stay still, but we move, and they move with us — and our shifting reactions (critical, theatrical, journalistic, pedagogical) are worth attending to. The plays have facets, and when the lighting changes, so do they. But what that lighting reveals is also what was always there. Click, snap—this been the damn world.

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